Tuesday, September 13, 2011
It was snowing gently. The air was pleasantly crisp, and flickering candles in the windows were throwing warm light on the narrow dusky streets. Heather was on an errand to deliver bread to several households. She was rather enjoying the task, as it could get quite stuffy in the house during winters when the door was closed most of the time and so were the windows. Everybody else loved heat in this family of bakers, loved it so much that Heather thought they wouldn’t mind sleeping in the mouth of the oven which was always spreading its hot, alder leaf scented breath in the kitchen, and from there to the rest of the house, finding escape only through the sole nostril that this building had - the window of Heather’s room that remained open throughout the year. Sometimes when it got too cold she would be asked to close it as the chill was spreading to the next rooms. This was no doubt a warm house in all meanings of the word.
In need of some refreshment Heather had picked the basket from the big table and left, thus unspokenly volunteering to bring the hot loafs to their new owners. It was a favourable arrangement for everyone, as Heather’s three brothers - the other candidates for this mission, were not at all keen on a walk at this time of year, except for the one walk leading to the pub down the road, and a groggy stagger back a couple of hours later.
The smell of freshly baked bread from the basket mixed with other fragrances that lingered in the streets: fried onions, cooked beef, cinnamon pies, tobacco, and the less-pleasant smell coming from Amos Perkins’s house – a sad building on the edge of the city that many believed was held together by some kind of magic, for by the looks of it there was no way it could stand upright according to any laws of nature. The house stood a little aside from the cluster of other buildings in the very North of Arbora, however on days when the city was visited by strong Northern wind Mr. Perkins’s presence was made nasally noticeable in the vicinity. That was actually the only way in which his presence was made noticeable at all, as he barely left his house. Those few who had ever entered his domicile claimed that part of the infamous odour, and that was the good part of it, came from the chunks of dried meat that were hung all over the ceiling. Did he bake his own bread? Did someone else bake it for him? Or did he just live on meat like a sworn carnivore? Heather often asked herself these questions as his place of dwelling came into her sight. Something felt different about this architectural wonder tonight, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.
There was one loaf of bread left in the basket, snoozing comfortably under a double layer of tea towel. Heather did not bother to have a look at the delivery note to check who it was meant for, it was the same people day after day, she could have done this tour with her eyes closed, unmistakeably knocking on the right doors. She took the bread out of the basket and knocked on the door of Mrs. Cottonclew, Mr. Perkins’s closest neighbour who never tired of complaining about the ‘benefits’ of living at such a short distance from him. Waiting for the door to open, Heather took off her scarf, put it in the basket and covered it with the towel to make it look like there was still work to be done in case this was one of the days when Anne Cottonclew’s urge to pour her soul out would mean staying here for an extra hour, as it had happened so many times before. It was getting cold, even for Heather, and dark. There was no answer, so she knocked louder this time. She took a step back and looked up at the top floor windows. They were as dark as the ground floor ones. Had the lady of the house fallen asleep? The last thing their family needed was a complaint about a failed delivery. She kept knocking on the door and waiting for the next ten minutes before turning around to leave. The wind was blowing from the South, and after a couple of steps Heather realized how unpleasant that would make her journey home. In need of some comfort she broke a chunk off the undelivered bread and took a bite. She put the remaining loaf back in the basket and removed her scarf from it. As she was putting the scarf around her neck a piece of paper fell out of it and landed on the ground. She picked the drenched delivery note up and had a quick look at it. The lump of bread got stuck in her throat. ‘Quail lane 1. Amos Perkins’ said the last line. This was a disaster, and a very confusing one. It made no sense. Heather gave it a moment of thought. Had Anne Cottonclew gone out and forwarded the order to her favourite neighbour? Why would she? She had enough friends among her more agreeable neighbours, and several of them were obviously at home this hour. Whatever the answer was, there was only one thing that Heather could do - she would have to go home, explain all this to her parents as efficiently and apologetically as possible, grab another loaf and rush back. Neither of the things on this to-do list delighted her, besides - it would be pitch black and freezing by the time it would be accomplished. She turned around one last time to see if there were any signs that at least Amos Perkins was at home. He no doubt was.
Heather finally realized what it was that had seemed so unwonted about Perkins's house earlier. All its windows that were usually gloomy and dark were gleaming with bright candlelight, and so was the door. It was open and someone was standing in the doorway. Heather’s heart was racing. She had been noticed. She cursed herself for banging on Mrs. Cottonclew’s door so loudly and insistantly. Now she will have to go and confess to Mr. Perkins that in a moment of absent-mindedess she had half-consumed his bakery order, and then amiably promise to be back as soon as possible with a replacement. A sudden realization made the sitaution worse: unlikely as it might be, all signs were pointing at the possibility that Perkins might be having guests: one of the many reasons why the man was so unsociable was his infamous stinginess, and yet tonight there seemed to be countless candles lit in all the rooms, and there was bread to be delivered to his house. This was bad, this was worse than a missed regular delivery to a regular customer. Guests will have to be kept waiting. And as Heather was slowly making her way towards the house, which in its turn seemed shaking with desire to collapse over her, she started having doubts whether the tall shadow in the doorway belonged to Amos Perkins at all. She could hear her own heartbeat. The person came towards her. There were no signs of Perkins’s proverbial limp in his pace.
Heather stopped. That was the last thing she had expected to hear right now, uttered in the voice of the last person she would expect to meet here. She batted her eyes to try and see through the darkness and snow.
Friday, September 9, 2011
The First, the Second and the Third met again at the Twistroot Glade - the ancient meeting-place so familiar to the three companions, and totally and absolutely unknown to anyone else in the whole wide world. They met at midnight between the third and the fourth day of the week, as they had done every fortnight since joining the Secret Three, each at their own time. The Third had missed one of the gatherings shortly after joining the Order twenty four years ago. No one knew exactly what the cause of that absence had been, but by the way he walked and spoke two weeks later it was clear that the reason had most likely had to do with fighting for his life in one way or another. The Second, due to a persistant and dangerous illness, had had to miss three secret meetings in a row, and even now, a decade later, he still felt shame for such infamously lengthy non-attendance. The First had never missed a single one of the Midweek Councils in his long and dedicated life. But no life, no matter how long and fulfilled, could measure the history of the Order of the Secret Three.
It was a bit of an irony that secrecy had literally become the Order’s most characteristic feature, for there had been times when this society, minute is numbers but great in wisdom, was very well known. Now, however, it had become so respectably old and prudently inconspicious that people barely remembered of its existence in the olden days, and were totally unaware of the fact that three people still religiously assembled every two weeks to honour this longstanding custom. And no one, except for the three honorable members themselves, knew that such gathering was taking place this midnight, deep in the forest, within a circle formed on the ground by tangled tree roots.
The moon was kindly throwing its light over the glade so that the Three could see everything clearly: everything except for their faces that were hidden under the hoods of their grey cloaks. They could not see each other’s face that night. They had never seen each other’s face before. Neither of them, in spite of all the guessing and suspicions over the years, had the faintest idea of who the other two were.
After a general greeting that seemed more rushed than usual the Second said:
‘The Tilians are going all the way this time. They either gain Arbora back or they leave it forever. As a mound of ash.’
‘Back!’ the First laughed softly. ‘These people cannot even remember the times when Arbora was theirs. It has never been theirs. Their great grandfathers’? – yes. Some of them. But most of those who are fighting there now have never even crossed the borders before. The Tilian cities have grown bigger, stronger and more prosperous than Arbora has ever been. And yet they want it. Want it back, as they would put it.’
‘When a branch breaks a branch, when a root strangles a root, they...we must act,’ the Second delivered as if quoting from a book. ‘I’m afraid that happens to be now.’
The Three stood in silence for a while. They had been indulging in their knowledge of history of these lands and people for years, wondering whether a day would come when the history woud make itself known again, and the knowledge prove valuable. That day had come: as they were standing in the glade where every little sound of nature could be heard in the quiet of the night, miles away in the city all subtle sounds were muted by cries and commands, clashing swords and breaking walls. The citadel was at war. And burning.
‘Where do we start?’ the Second asked in a deflated voice, lacking any pretence of dignity that had coloured his speech at previous meetings. He felt none of the sensation he thought he would at a time like this. There was no excitement. Only will to withdraw, desire to be useful, and the annoying reality between the two. Had he grown old? Was that why this did not seem like an adventure?
Another streak of silence followed before the First broke it.
‘The two of us who are counsellors to the sovereigns must speak to them. That is what we do: speak and hope they will listen. You...’, he turned his head towards the Third, ‘...must find the children.’
The Third smiled. He alone knew he did it as his face was still covered: the extraordinary circumstances were not a reason to break the code.
‘The children. Yes, of course I'll find them.’
That’s what they had been when he last saw them nine years ago. Children.
Monday, September 5, 2011
The dwarf leered eerily at Maya while generously pouring hedge hyssop infusion in two large clay cups from a rusty old kettle; his long yellow front teeth set in a frame of what might have been a smile.
‘You haven’t come empty-handed, have you?’ he said rather than asked.
‘I’m sorry, I haven’t brought anything.’
What kind of unnecessary enquiry was that? He knew very well she had not come to the citadel for tea, and there was no need to assume she would have any refreshments with her.
The quirky host placed himself on a high wooden stool, not without some effor. He pushed one of the cups towards his guest, took the other one with both hands and stared at the swirl of steam coming from the surface of the hot beverage. His facial expressions changed so vividly as if the vapour was telling the most thrilling of stories.
‘You have golden hair,’ he said in a voice that was both squeaky and mild, still looking at the green drink and noddling his head slowly.
‘Golden hair and eyes of moss. You...’ he finally looked up and stretched a long gnarled finger at her, ‘...will bring us three years of abundant harvest, and a plague when those three years have passed. A plague, cruel and merciless, the kind of which these lands have not seen for hundreds of years.’
He said it all very calmly, almost in a chant; his whole body swaying from side to side now. This was the most extraordinary dwarf Maya had ever seen, which could as well be explained by the fact that she had never seen a dwarf before, ordinary or not. His reasoning in its turn didn’t seem any less odd to Maya than the speaker himself.
‘And that is because I have golden hair an eyes of moss?’ she asked in perplexity.
‘And eyes of moss,’ he nodded assent.
‘I’m still quite puzzled. How exactly do these things ...?’
‘Shall I explain?!!’ the dwarf interrupted her ardently. The chance to officially explain himself had sparked a flame of genuine excitement. He put his cup on the table, took a deep breath, widened his eyes just to narrow them again dramatically.
‘You see. If one has hair of gold and eyes of moss, they bring to these lands prosperity for a year, a year and a year,’ he counted all three years by unbending the fingers of his left hand with his right one, ‘and then a plague: a pestilance rich in death and sorrow, and all things unpleasant.’
‘And is there no one else with hair and eyes like mine in this city?’
‘Was!’ the dwarf banged his fist on the table. ‘Four hundred years ago, there was. And there was general prosperity that lasted for three winters and three summers. And the plague was there too, at the end of it all.’
‘And the hair and eyes? What do they have to do with that?’
‘What do they have to do?’ He looked at Maya bewildered, utterly astonished by such lack of deduction skills in a human mind. He sighed heavily and started again.
‘A woman lived here in those days. She had those eyes and that hair. It’s all in the Chronicles. And she was held responsible. For the plague at least. Some say the rich harvests and fortunate trade in the years prior to that plight were also her doing. But until this day everybody in Arbora, from a king to a toad, knows it’s a bad omen when the likes of her come to the city. Have you a hat?’
When was the last time this creature had left his shack, Maya thought? Did he know at all that Arbora and the lands surrounding it were already overcome by plague and war? There was no need to predict any more of it. Had he any knowledge of who the king was, or who claimed to be the rightful queen up there in the citadel? She would have liked to ask him, explain to him if necessary had the time not been so scarce and so precious. But it was. Therefore she got straight to the one question that had been on her mind all along, and although it didn’t seem very likely that her host would be of great help, she had to give it a chance.
‘I’m looking for a friend,’ she said.
‘Tell me about it,’ the dwarf rolled his eyes. ‘I’ve been looking for a friend too, yet never managed to find one.’ He reflected on his own words for a moment. The swaying stopped. The dwarf’s gaze seemed to be wandering somewhere. Maya didn’t quite know how to carry on with this interview in a more sensitive manner, but the need for answers about her old friend was stronger than the compassion for this new acquaintance.
‘The truth is, it’s this particular friend I’m looking for.’
‘You have friends?’ Dwarf’s eyes widened and his whole face gleamed at the revelation that these creatures might actually exist, that right now there was somebody, sitting here oposite him in his own kitchen, claiming to have seen them.
‘Just one,’ she smiled sadly.
‘One friend!’ the dwarf raised his index finger. He held it very close to his eyes and squinted at it in admiration.
‘Anyway, I hope I still have this one left. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Perhaps you know if he’s here. His name is...’
‘No!’ The dwarf said with firm certitude. He clambered off the stool and headed towards the door. As he was about to disappear behind the sheaves of garlic hanging at the doorpost, he added without looking back: ‘I have not heard of any friends in Arbora.’